On a recent fall afternoon at Bard College, the musician Amanda Palmer was wrapping up Sunday’s rehearsal for a student production she composed music for called The Bed Show. The 38-year old has an easygoing demeanor for someone whose eyebrows are painted like lines of barbed wire. She offhandedly mentioned crashing at Melissa Auf Der Maur’s house nearby in Hudson, New York. Dressed in black velvet pants and her hair drawn up in wine red coils, Palmer seemed to be relishing the makeshift retreat from her public persona, which returns in full force this week with the release tomorrow (Nov. 11) of her first memoir, The Art of Asking by Grand Central.
Palmer has become a problem child for the music business’s old regime. After gleefully leaving Roadrunner Records in 2010 (she wrote and performed the song “Please Drop Me” directed at her contract holders), Palmer turned to crowdfunding. Leaning on her fans was a smart move for the profuse blogger, Twitterer, and merch table hugger. The Boston native had built her identity around interaction as half of the cabaret-punk duo the Dresden Dolls, and before that, as a street performer called the 8-Foot Bride. In 2012, Palmer received an historic $1.2 million from her 24,883 backers on Kickstarter, making it the most financially successful music campaign to date. Critics cried foul when Palmer later asked volunteers to perform on her tour for free, sparking a media frenzy she says was a “sad misunderstanding.”
Palmer abetted the controversy in a TED talk called “The Art of Asking.” She later holed up in Melbourne, Australia to turn the 14-minute lecture into her first memoir. Written in her conversational blogging tone, Palmer addresses her struggle for authenticity while chronicling stories of her international fanbase. She writes about having an abortion at age 17, her marriage to prized science-fiction writer Neil Gaiman and the illness of her mentor, Anthony Martignetti.
Palmer sat down with Billboard to talk about shame, her Twitter idols, and why artists should experiment with releasing new music.
Billboard: Did you consider crowdfunding your book?
Palmer: I weighed that really carefully, but I decided to go with a publisher with no regrets. I didn’t want to spend my year running a crowdfunding campaign and a small publishing house. I wanted to spend a year writing a book. I don’t have anything philosophical against publishers, labels, marketing companies. In fact, I think artists should choose from the smorgasbord and choose what they need at any given moment.
You’ve used different services in the past, from Kickstarter to PledgeMusic, which doesn’t set a financial target. Is there a courageousness in putting the dollar sign out there for people?
No, I don’t think it’s about courage at all. I think it is simply a personal choice. And it’s a political choice. If you’re successful at crowdfunding, there is a cost to transparency and there is a multitude of pros and cons that go along with exposing to the world what you are grossing, especially if you’re also taking the time every day to explain what you’re netting. You could say there’s no point in being transparent or you could say some people just don’t understand math and the difference between a gross and a net, and that’s simply part of the deal.
How were you able to reflect on the Kickstarter controversy so soon after it happened?
That event was the fuel I needed to write this book. As painful as it was, I was hoping maybe if someone doesn’t get this, I can make them understand that [life] isn’t just about money and it isn’t just about success and it isn’t just about who’s fucking coming into first place.
You have an intense relationship with social media, and your husband [Neil Gaiman] is active on Twitter as well. Do you feel misperceived on Twitter?
Interesting that you bring Neil up, because we really aid each other in this bizarre new journey of negotiating social media — the trolling and the hate. We have both called the other one and said ‘for fuck’s sake delete that tweet now before it gets any worse.’ Neil winds up getting fallout from Amanda Palmer world. [Once] I was embroiled in some feminist controversy on Twitter and some angry feminist tweeted to Neil “Can’t you tell your wife to shut the fuck up?” and I was like, ‘You guys are missing the point on a cosmic level! At least yell at me!’ That one was classic. Neil and I were just laughing our asses off at the irony of the world.
How do you censor yourself online?
It really is a dual skill set. It is [knowing] when you disrupt the hive or say something politically incorrect or off-color and have to deal with whether to do damage control and to what degree to do damage control. The era of social media has meant that artists must do their own PR. Not everybody is good at it, unless you have a PR person holding your fucking hand while you are tweeting, especially if you’re drunk at 3 AM in the morning. Seriously.
Who are your Twitter idols? Who do you learn from?
Margaret Cho is a great a great example of a person who actively forced me to up my game. I would read her writing, her Twitter feed, hang out with her, go to her shows, and think “I’m not being honest enough” [laughs]. The great thing artists can do for one another is machete a path out that you can walk down. They somehow give you permission to widen your perspective or your own sense of authenticity. When I see Sarah Silverman talking about her sex life or Cho talking about how she feels about her anus hair, I’m inspired to be more honest about myself.
Self-doubt and compensation are major threads throughout your story. How did you feel about attending a private university [Wesleyan]?
I didn’t flourish until after college. In college, I kind of just floated around. I was weird, I didn’t have a place. I studied extremely hard, but it was a stagnant, stilted environment for me. I knew I wanted to go into the arts when I was in high school, working on theater productions. That was the last time I had had collaborative experiences that inspired me. I realized I could write well. But it wasn’t until after college that I found my group.
Tell me about your friend Anthony Martignetti.
Anthony is a pretty old-school dude, raised in an Italian-American family. He would make fun of me for not shaving my legs but I was equipped enough with my own strength to just give him the finger and be like “too bad for you, your best friend has hairy legs”. He’d come back with a quip about how he was ‘authentically’ allowed to hate my leg hair. Anthony pushed me to keep going. I’ve essentially never stopped. There’s an almost agonizing poetry in the fact that this book comes out a week after Anthony goes in to get a bone marrow transplant.
I’m so sorry.
But I’m glad you were able to finish this book for him.
He helped edit it. He’d say “I wouldn’t say this bullshit” [laughs]. He wrote himself and I wanted him to. His voice has spoken through me all my life and I love his voice is going to go out to a larger audience, because he taught me all about the big stuff: love, compassion and empathy. At the end of the day, this is what the book is. It is a gift that must be given.
Throughout the book you question whether you’re authentic at every turn. You detail the accompanying shame that being an artist isn’t ‘a real job.’
That particular thread of self-doubt, Fraud Police, Impostor Syndrome, dissecting my own place in the universe, has been a project that I embarked on in my teens. This is one story I wish I’d put in the book. I remember telling Anthony when I was 14 or 15 years old: “I feel like a total narcissistic failure of a human being because when I’m sitting under a tree on a beautiful summer day, reading my amazing poetry book, all I can think of is how wonderfully romantic it would look if someone walked by, seeing me sitting under the tree reading my romantic poetry book. I’m a completely inauthentic person and I can’t enjoy the moment!” Anthony’s answer to my little freaked-out teenage self — and my answer to my current self, because I still live in that bubble of self-consciousness — is all you can do is be aware of it. That’s it. I’m still vain and I still am fascinated by my own vanity. The ability to simply sit in your own skin and feel what you’re feeling and accept yourself is one of the gifts that Anthony gave me that I had to find my own way to.
What would you say to people who still think you’re taking advantage of your fans?
I would say that to run a business like this costs money and it needs to come from somewhere and hopefully it comes from people paying for the art that I’m spending money to create and distribute. To see people feel anger about this is just silly. No one gets angry at Apple for our iPhones. We just have very strange and romantic notions about art and how it should and shouldn’t have value. Now with the curtain pulled back, and the system being exposed, there’s a lot of skittishness. I’d much rather face these things head on than pretend there some magic going on that there isn’t.
What does it take for you to be satisfied with your art?
I have my own set of standards of what I need to be happy and I have listened to my fans for 15 years. If that means hiring my own staff or working with an office of people to get things where they need to be, the infrastructure isn’t as important as the art. The art has to come first. Like many musicians, I enjoy the freedom to constantly experiment. One thing I love is that I can try different systems every cycle. I don’t feel like I’m sitting in an office wondering what would work. The nature of the collision of art and technology is to give birth to things that no one has done before.